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Monday, January 26, 2004  

Tech talk: Better than Wi-Fi?

If you have a laptop, you've probably received correspondence, by email or post, about signing up for wireless enhanced access. It also called digital cellular data service or wWan - Wireless Wide Area Networks. Solicitors usually describe it as a giant step above 802.11 accessibility. A pitch from Sierra Wireless is typical.

What if you could turn downtime into productive time? All that time you spend in hotels and airports. All that time between sales calls or meetings. Even the time you spend driving in a cab or traveling by train. . . With just one click from your laptop, you can check your important email messages, instant message friends and colleagues, make travel reservations, download directions - whatever you need.

The manufacturers say the cards, which are inserted into one's PCMCIA slot, access the Internet at speeds up to 144Kbps.

The key to the greater usability of these wireless cards is that they don't rely on hotspots. Even in cities with reputations for good Wi-Fi access, such as Portland and Seattle, finding available sites can be tricky. I've pretty much given up on Personal Telco, a local free network that gets good press, but is rarely available when one needs it. Of the dozen or so of hotspots it lists in my home area, at least half are unavailable, often because they were never really established or closed down without informing anyone.

Until recently, only owners of Microsoft Windows laptops running later OSes need apply for wireless enhanced access. That has changed. MacCentral reports on software that will make at least one Sierra Wireless card Macintosh-compatible.

Stretched Out Software Inc. has released a Mac-compatible data driver for the Sierra Wireless AirCard 555 - a PC card that enables laptop computers to communicate through cellular telephone networks. The software works on both Jaguar and Panther, and is available for online purchase for US$29.95.

"Wi-Fi" wireless networking access through AirPort (IEEE 802.11b) or AirPort Extreme (IEEE 802.11g) is ubiquitous across Apple's product line. Finding a "hot spot" - a location where you can actually connect online - can be vexing when you're on the road, however. More and more hotels, coffee shops, bookstores, airports and convention centers feature Wi-Fi hot spots, but in most areas, cellular telephone access is far more widespread.

Sierra Wireless Inc. manufactures a line of PC Card expansion cards that communicate through cellular telephone data networks. Their AirCard 555, for which Stretched Out Software developed its Mac-compatible data driver, is just such a product. It uses the CDMA2000 1X protocol supported by some carriers in the United States and Canada (Sierra's Web site has more information).

Sierra's own card offering requires various flavors of Windows - and even with Stretched Out Software's drivers, still requires pre-activation on a Windows PC. But once you've done that, Stretched Out Software's own drivers can enable that card to function on a Mac laptop.

The flip side? The cost of enhanced wireless is greater than for 802.11. The wireless cards sell for about $300. The customer must commit to at least a one-year contract with Sierra Wireless or other providers. If she signs up through an Internet service provider, there will likely be additional monthly charges in the $30 range.

Hewlett Packard offers an enhanced wireless access service that is less restrictive than others.

Wireless Wide Area Networks (wWAN) provides access to information anytime & anywhere you have cellular (data) coverage. What that means is that you can possibly get your e-mails, browse the web and access other corporate information while you are away from the office.

HP provides you a one stop shop for your wWAN solution. You can purchase your card and activate through HP!

Should you already have an existing account with a carrier, no problem. HP Wireless can still activate your wireless modem under your existing account to ensure proper billing and related activation credits. As an additional benefit, we may provide [an] activation rebate when you activate with us.

I believe enhanced wireless access might be a boon to someone who really needs to be able to go online at any time or who can pass on the bills on to her employer. With its lower cost, Wi-Fi, though less convenient, seems suitable for the average user of wireless data services.

12:14 PM